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I had the recent pleasure of being on my first “chase,” which is to take a car trip for a designated number of days with the goal of discovering as much as possible. This chase was going to focus on discovering châteaux and everything medieval. So off we headed to the Loire Valley.
It was fortunate that there was mild weather, sunny skies and signs of spring at every turn. The hilly country roads provided what seemed to be an unending expanse of freshly planted fields and acres of newly sprouted green pastures dotted by both small and large picturesque farms. The March skies presented an array of fluffy clouds, ever changing as a uniquely blurred kaleidoscope of blues, grays and white.
The first stop was at a grand, expansive mansion set some distance off of the road and looking exactly like a château. We were not sure if the building was occupied or in neglect and so we chose to ignore the sign that said ‘private’. Once we got closer to the house it was obvious that the main portion was not occupied. The long, expansive wings of main house appeared to be divided into individual rental units. After admiring the lines and details of this beautiful building we headed out at the convenient moment when a young woman was entering. She was happy to chat with us and recounted that our impression was accurate in that this was a château. She confirmed that the main section was not in use and that the other sections had been divided and rented. She further told us that the property was constructed by a nobleman and had been in the family for many generations. The current owners were reported to have a home in back of the main house. Our fantasies ran wild with what prospects this charming château could offer and perhaps it would be worth a follow up visit if the owners would consent to a tour. As we were heading out, a small sign gave us the name of this first stop, Château de Mezière. With a little investigative work, I found that the original plans for the château date from 1640 but the present castle was built in the seventeenth century. It then underwent a major restoration in 1883.
With this delightful discovery we were off to a good “chase” and so on we went to the next town and the historic Basilique Notre-Dame de Clèry in Clèry-Saint-André. This massive church is literally squeezed into the village and without a wide-angle camera it was impossible to obtain a photo of the entire cathedral begun in the fourteenth century and completed in the sixteenth century. A charming fact about this cathedral, is that it will forever remain well-known because of its association with the french nursery rhyme, Le Carillon de Vendôme. What I will remember most about this church are the numerous bird nests at the entrances above the doors. Here is the rhyme for those of you young at heart:
Mes amis, que reste-t-il ?
À ce Dauphin si gentil ?
Notre-Dame de Cléry,
Our tour was very close to the extravagantly beautiful masterpiece of the French Renaissance, the Chambord Château. One could never get enough of this fairytale château and if you have not taken the time, it is well worth the short excursion from Paris.
Near to the Chambord Château is the estate for the Liquor Royal de Chambord de framboise created in 1685 when Louis XIV visited the area. The original liquor is a combination of red raspberries and blackberries along with honey, vanilla and cognac. This is not really a château but a magnificent estate home worthy of finding and exploring. If nothing else, it is a good excuse to discover this liquor from the seventeenth century still being produced according to the original recipe.
Our final destination for this first days outing was Niort and as we traveled the back roads we came upon the lovely Fougères-sur-Bièvre Château from the fifteenth century. This is a marvelous fortified structure complete with its keep and towers. It is ideally situated near to the river and a garden has been maintained on the grounds. If you are looking for an ideal medieval château look no further.
Only a short distance beyond the Fougères-sur-Bièvre Château brought us to the Chateau de Montrichard in the Loir-et-Cher which was constructed at the beginning of the eleventh century. It rests majestically at the top of a hill. Although today it is in ruins it is not difficult to imagine the imposing presence that it once commanded. For optimally viewing the Chateau de Montrichard, I suggest that you cross the river. There are numerous areas to park and absorb the beauty of the river, the château and the surrounding village.
As we admired Chateau de Montrichard the sun was beginning to set and it was time that we headed on to Niort where a warm, cozy guest house and home cooked meal awaited us.
The Loire Valley spans at least 170 miles in the middle of the Loire River in the center of France. Because of the abundance of fruit orchards, farms and vineyards this area is considered the “Garden of France”. In 2000 this central section of the Loire River was added by UNESCO to its list of World Heritage Sites. It is also home to a plethora of castles waiting for you to discover and explore (over 300). Everyone can chase their dreams and what a better dream than to chase after castles in the Loire Valley.
Loui Franke is author of Parisian Postcards: Snapshots of Life in Paris.